401 Space Travelers

(1969, SciFi, color)

Hackman’s good in anything.

Rating: *

In a nutshell:

NASA struggles to rescue three stranded astronauts from their disabled space capsule.


...is not the real title of this movie.Three astronauts played by Richard Crenna, James Franciscus, and Gene Hackman go up into orbit on the space capsule Ironman I. They live in a space station for five months of their seven-month mission before the NASA chief (played by Gregory Peck) sees how the long stay in space has made them edgy and accident-prone and calls them down. They strap themselves into the capsule and get ready to blast back down to earth, but the retro rockets don’t fire. Try as they might, NASA can’t figure out why or how to fix it.

After a protracted board-room argument, they decide to send up a guy in another spacecraft to get them, working as fast as they can to get there before their oxygen runs out. The astronaut’s wives show up to speak with their husbands individually, and at great length. Hackman breaks down, raving that it’s all his fault.

A hurricane blows by, delaying the launch of the rescue craft. Everyone gives up the astronauts for dead until the eye of the storm blows into the area. They launch the rescue craft through the eye of the storm, but by then there’s not enough oxygen left for three people. Gregory Peck and Richard Crenna have an oblique little talk about it, and then Crenna climbs out and throws himself into space.

A passing Russian craft comes past to try to give them air, and Franciscus tries to propel Hackman towards it. He misses and passes out from the exertion. The Russian goes into the Ironman capsule to give him air while the rescue craft arrives to collect the floating Hackman. The ground control people cheer while they pack up the surviving astronauts and go home.


I can't even lick my own elbow, let alone chew my own head off.Crow is The Great Crowdini! He hangs upside down in chains while Joel lights a cannon and points it at his head. He loses the key he’s been hiding in his mouth at a crucial moment.

Host Segment One:

Crow chewed off his own head just in time to avoid having it blown off by the cannon. Joel has invented the Dollaroid, an instant camera that will print your face on currency. Tom and Crow enact a little skit about how you no longer need to carry I.D. to spend cash. Tom argues that you’ve never needed I.D. for actual cash and Joel tries to give him “hush money.” Tom complains that the hush money has his picture on it and is therefore worthless. The Mads have invented facial tissue, which prints celebrity faces on Kleenex. Frank sneezes into Pat Buchanan in Sensurround.

Host Segment Two:

Joel and the ‘Bots rattle off a long list of things invented for space travel, including meatballs and the woozle whose name was peanut.

Host Segment Three:

Joel and Tom are stranded on a cardboard space capsule while Crow feeds them incomprehensible space jargon in a dead-on Gregory Peck impression. The sketch falls apart when Crow starts jumping to other, less recognizable impressions.

Host Segment Four:

Joel wonders, if one of them had to sacrifice themselves to save the others, who would it be? Tom and Crow remind him that, as robots, neither of them needs oxygen. They discuss how cool that is amongst themselves while Joel remarks, “I’m already alone.”

Host Segment Five:

Joel and the ‘Bots play a little game called “Find the Finder of Lost Loves.” He hides an action figure of James Franciscus under one of three space capsules, switches them around, and then makes the ‘Bots guess which one he’s under. All the space capsules contain figurines of Tony Franciosa. Down in Deep 13, Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank wave their hands dismissively.


Gene Hackman contemplates a pill.


Hackman's good in this scene too.Here we have it: the only MST3K film ever to win an Academy Award. It’s for special effects, and even though they don’t look that great by today’s standards, they’re not distracting either. Well, except for the obvious wires on the Russian space capsule.

The film has a strong cast, a gripping story, and halfway decent writing. If it had ever bothered to stir itself even up to a walking pace it would have been a good movie. The four-paragraph summary above doesn’t leave anything out, covering the entire ninety minutes of the episode. The folks at Best Brains trimmed it down from its original feature length of 132 minutes for the show; I can’t imagine how mind-numbingly boring this must have been to see in the theater.

The host segments are all right. The Dollaroid is a funny idea, and Tom’s objections are well stated. Crow does an excellent Gregory Peck impression, and the pseudo-science-speak he throws out in his deep Peck-ish voice is hilarious until he veers off into left field. Joel and the ‘Bots have a lot of fun with the common confusion of James Franciscus with Tony Franciosa in the last segment. The Mads’ hand-waving scene would probably have worked better on stage in front of an audience.

There weren’t a lot of funny things for them to say during the film segments. The movie’s good enough that it must have been hard to mock. They stuck with making fun of the glacial pace, the stock footage, and the space program in general. My favorite running joke is when they note several times that Gene Hackman’s good in every scene, even the ones where he’s not present. Like First Spaceship on Venus this is a film that they probably shouldn’t have done in the first place.